A Cedar Rapids school bus driver was charged Sept. 21 with failure to yield to a pedestrian after she struck an 84-year-old woman in a crosswalk. An 11-year-old boy was killed Oct. 31 when he walked in front of his school bus in rural Janesville.
Prompted by the accidents, The Gazette and KCRG checked the names of corridor school bus drivers on Iowa Courts online to identify the ones with criminal convictions and traffic violations. Our findings include:
Of 366 drivers for Cedar Rapids, Iowa City, Linn-Mar and College Community school districts, 155, or 42 percent, have at least one non-parking infraction since 2000. The bulk of violations are for speeding, but there are also citations for failure to yield, unsafe backing, failure to stop at railroad tracks and unlawful passing of a school bus.
Local school bus drivers have convictions for drunken driving, assault, disorderly conduct, child endangerment, theft and selling tobacco to a minor.
Linn-Mar had the highest violation rate with 47 percent of bus drivers having at least one traffic infraction since 2000, while Cedar Rapids is the lowest at 37 percent.
Many Eastern Iowa parents said they don’t know the driving record of their children’s school bus drivers, despite research linking prior traffic violations to future crashes.
“This was news to me,” said Chris Swehla, of Iowa City, whose daughter rides the bus to and from City High. “I would venture to say few, if any, parents know what the driving records are.”
Andi Londquist, a Cedar Rapids mom whose kindergartner rides the bus to Monroe Elementary, said she expected the district to do “due diligence for our children.”
School districts check applicants’ driving records through the Iowa Department of Transportation, run criminal histories and check for applicants’ names on registries for sex offenders and child abusers.
“We look at frequency, duration and when they got the violations,” said Denny Schreckengast, transportation manager for the Cedar Rapids School District. “Some (violations) would be disqualifies immediately.”
School bus drivers must have a valid Commercial Driver’s License, or CDL.
The DOT can suspend a driver’s CDL for commiting two or more serious traffic violations within a three-year period while driving a bus or other commercial vehicle. A driver can also lose his or her CDL for driving drunk in a commercial vehicle, leaving the scene of an accident in a commercial vehicle or committing a felony involving the use of a commercial vehicle.
School districts often have stricter standards.
“We primarily follow our insurance carrier’s guidelines,” said Scott Grabe, transportation director for the College Community district.
The district prohibits the following violations within a three-year period:
“Two preventable accidents without regard to payment, more than four moving violations, more than three moving violations in a 12 month period, reckless driving, drunken driving, hit and run, revocation of driving privilege and serious violations.”
Most districts require bus drivers to report any citations or traffic accidents immediately, even if the violations happen in their personal vehicles. Cedar Rapids, Linn-Mar, Iowa City and College Community do ongoing checks for drivers already on the road.
Criminal convictions dealt with case by case
Districts vary on how they handle criminal convictions.
College Community’s insurer, Holmes Murphy, requires bus drivers to have no drunken driving convictions for the previous three years, but the district expands that to five years.
“An OWI third is a felony conviction,” Grabe said. “I don’t touch anyone with a felony conviction.”
Iowa City’s bus contractor, Durham School Services, goes further.
Iowa City drivers can have no drunken driving offenses within the past 10 years. Felony convictions, including drugs, sex, weapons or burglary, within the past 10 years would also bar a driver.
The most recent OWI included in The Gazette review of corridor bus drivers was from 1998. A second driver was convicted of drunken driving twice in 1997 and a third driver convicted twice in 1996.
None of the bus drivers identified in The Gazette review has a felony conviction.
For misdemeanors, district officials talk with applicants about the charges and determine whether the incident has a potential effect on the job, said Jill Cirivello, human resources director for the Cedar Rapids school district.
Cedar Rapids bus driver Vicki Laird, 43, is not driving a school bus while the district investigates the Sept. 21 collision. She has no other traffic or criminal convictions and said she was blinded by the morning sun when she struck Bonnie Nielsen. Nielsen suffered broken bones and a serious head injury, her family said.
Michaela Siems-Dighton, the Janesville bus driver who struck and killed Justin Bradfield on Halloween, has three speeding tickets since 2000. However, she was cleared of wrongdoing in the fatal crash as investigators learned Bradfield was hit when he went in front of the bus to pick up an item he had dropped.
Research links past record with future crashes
Some parents said they aren’t bothered by bus drivers getting speeding tickets or other minor citations.
“I think sometimes speeding violations are overblown,” said Dennis Cronk, of Iowa City, whose three children ride the school bus to Lemme Elementary.
But research by the Center for National Truck and Bus Statistics at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute shows that previous traffic infractions are linked to future crashes.
CDL drivers with two or more speeding offenses or two or more serious offenses were involved in 40 percent more crashes than drivers without previous crashes or offenses, according to the center’s study of more than 190,000 Michigan CDL holders from 2001-07.
School buses accounted for 40 percent of fatal accidents nationwide from 2004 to 2008, according to a 2011 study from the UM center.
“I think it’s largely exposure,” said Center Director Dan Blower. School buses “are on the road regularly, in more congested areas and operating in more stop-and-start mode.”
It’s hard to compare the driving records of school bus drivers with those of passenger vehicle drivers, but the UM center found that CDL holders had slightly higher rates of offenses per driver, per year in an analysis of Michigan drivers from 2001 to 2005. School bus drivers have lower rates of moving violations compared to other bus drivers, Blower said.
College Community is considering installing GPS units in each school bus that would record the speed of the bus as well as sudden stops and collisions, Grabe said.